On the Patient Wait to Document a Majestic, Decaying Georgia Home
I waited more than a dozen years to go into the derelict house across the street.
“That was so… respectful of you,” a neighbor said. She smiled, paused. Then she allowed that she and a cousin had slipped in several times. It’s a small town. People are curious.
Built shortly after the Civil War in 1876, this house passed in its lifetime through a handful of Georgia families—by inheritance, sale, and foreclosure. Its most recent owner was a lounge singer in the 1960s and 70s while living in a city nearby. The house sat opposite her mother’s place; they were neighbors for years when she came home in the mid-1980s.
When the city called her back again, the singer left but declined to sell the place, perhaps out of nostalgia. Every month or so, she’d come back to check on the empty house. She and her husband managed minor upkeep—mowing the overgrown lawn or hacking at wayward bushes. She moved slowly in a flowered shirt and sun hat, walking with a cane or later using a wheelchair to follow him around as he worked.
This is when I’d approach her, determined to wheedle an invitation inside. We made regular, polite small talk. When I asked for permission to see and photograph the house, she always answered absently, never committing. There were near-breakthroughs, as when she motioned me over one day for what turned out to be a long, rambling story about a dog hero rescuing a lost child.
Still no invitation.
A builder friend of mine, who’d long ago been inside while trying to buy the place, told me of its remarkable suspended rosewood staircase. “It’s better preserved than you might think,” he said, explaining that the steep pitch of the roof shed water quickly, sparing the house the worst of the wear and tear.
Standing in my yard or on the sidewalk out front, for years I studied and photographed the three front-facing, gingerbreaded dormers. On the right, a ribbon of windows ran along a wrap-around porch. There were hand-carved corbels and dentils on the front porch and facade.
I watched and waited. Despite the half-hearted pruning, vines and bushes overtook the first story. Storms blew patches of tile off the roof, exposing thin wooden shingles below; then even those fell away. Wood rotted and delicate molding crumbled. Boards on the porch peeled and curled. Still I waited.
In the intervening years, a local bank offered to finance a new roof. The owner declined. My builder friend made more and more generous offers. Still, she refused. Conversations in the side yard became more addled. She took, I heard, to buying up lots of clothing and things passed over by the Salvation Army, hoarding them in her oversized, still-furnished rooms.
When finally, in her late 70s, she moved into assisted living, the city managed to buy the place, offering late protection and the hope of a sale. I went inside.
I found she and her husband had placed plastic wading pools and trash cans in upper rooms to catch free-falling rain. Plaster fell away and hundreds of one-inch lathe boards were exposed. The city hauled out dump trucks full of detritus.
Still the rosewood staircase with its elaborate fretwork hung beautifully, suspended in the front entry. Without electricity, vaulted ceilings and nearly floor-to-ceiling windows streamed in late-day natural light. It seems the accumulation of things protected downstairs rooms. Purged, they hinted at their former grandeur. Ceilings featured intricate plaster medallions and hand-carved moldings. Etched, smoked-glass transom windows hung above tall wooden doors.
The place had an air like Dr. Zhivago’s ice-filled, empty rooms—storied, with more than a 140 years’ history. It was worth the wait.
Now I’m watching to see if it can be saved.
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Header photo by Kathleen Galvin.